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Familiar territory, foreign feeling for Eric Staal

Rangers forward ready to play as visitor in first game against Hurricanes

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

Eric Staal will have to try to remember which way to go when he returns to PNC Arena with the New York Rangers to play the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; MSG, FS-CR, NHL.TV).

"I've got to make sure I turn left," Staal said.

Left will take the forward to the visitors' dressing room, a foreign place to Staal, who played the first 909 games of his NHL career for the Hurricanes, including the last 464 as captain, until he was traded to the Rangers on Feb. 28 for two second-round draft picks and prospect Aleksi Saarela.

Staal technically still calls Raleigh home because that's where his wife and three sons have been living. In fact, that's where he is this week because the Rangers, who last played Sunday and don't play again until Thursday, let him make the trip early to reconnect with his family.

He hadn't seen them since they left New York after he made his Rangers debut Feb. 29.

"It'll be a different feeling walking in [to the arena], there's no question," Staal said. "I'll be coming from my house so it'll be the same routine as it normally would be going to a home game. But I'll be turning left instead of right."

Staal said he's finally getting into a routine as a Ranger on and off the ice a month after the trade. It's taken him this long because everything in his world basically has been turned upside down, from the hockey to his home life.

For starters there is his family life, or lack thereof for the past month. As expected, it's been hard to be away.

"You've got three boys, 6, 4 and 1, and when dad is not around it's different," Staal said. "They're used to having dad come home and I wasn't coming home. So a lot of FaceTime and different stuff like that. But they're doing good and they're excited."

They are because the entire family will be going to New York Friday and staying there until the end of the season. That's possible because Staal recently got his own apartment in New York. He had been living with his brother, Rangers defenseman Marc Staal, for the first few weeks after the trade.

"We're looking forward to the adventure starting Friday," Staal said.

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Staal has been on his own adventure trying to fit in with the Rangers, who play an up-tempo, quick puck-movement system that is different than the possession-based system he was playing in Carolina under coach Bill Peters.

Staal played center for his first 12 games with the Rangers and had one goal and two assists. He has played left wing the past two games and is coming off a two-goal effort in a 3-2 overtime loss against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

"It takes a little time, probably longer than I would have hoped, but every game and every day I'm feeling more comfortable and more confident with the way I can help this team," Staal said. "I feel like I will be able to do that going forward."

He should get the chance to do it in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, a rarity for Staal in Carolina.

He hasn't been to the postseason since 2009, when he helped the Hurricanes reach the Eastern Conference Final. The other time he played in the playoffs was 2006, when Carolina won the Stanley Cup.

The Rangers are second in the Metropolitan Division with 95 points, three more than the Penguins, who play the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; BELL TV, MSG-B, ROOT, NHL.TV).

"It's why you play," Staal said of the postseason. "It's why I wanted to be in the NHL and it's why I want to compete every year. You want to be in the playoffs. We're not there yet but we're very close and I think it'll be a whole other ballgame once I actually get out there for warmup in Game 1 of a playoff series. I think it'll be a whole set of emotions that to me, quite frankly, has been too long since I got to experience."

First, though, he'll get a once-in-a-lifetime experience Thursday in his former home.

The Hurricanes are planning a video tribute during a stoppage early in the game to honor Staal, his accomplishments and his relationship with Hurricanes fans. A Hurricanes representative said there also is a special surprise tribute planned for Staal when he arrives at the arena for the morning skate Thursday.

Staal said he's just hoping to be able to keep his emotions in check so he can enjoy and appreciate the experience before he tries to beat his former team.

"I guess there's certain situations and certain things that happen as a player that you don't really know how you're going to react, you don't know how you'll feel, you don't know what your emotions will be, until you really experience it," he said. "I think it'll be a lot of unique, different emotions just in general because of being there, and being there so long, playing in that building for the home team and now being on the opposing side. It's going to be a lot different, but specific emotion, I'm not sure what I'll be feeling to be honest."

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